The New York Red Bulls needed a win on Saturday night to keep pace with first place Atlanta United FC. Wearing their all whites, Chris Armas’ men strolled into a twinkling but largely-uninhabited Avaya Stadium – the treatment for an eliminated, last place team. In MLS, such games can be dangerous.
Even if the gap between first and last in the league has widened over the last few seasons, Red Bulls fans that tuned in for kickoff at 10:30 p.m. EST had reason to worry. Not only was there precedent for a spoiler based on league history, but transitioning from a match with the league leaders to a match with the league bottom dwellers presented the scenario of a quintessential letdown game.
However, in the first half, the Red Bulls scored through Alex Muyl in the 29th minute. Three minutes later, Bradley Wright-Phillips became the first player in MLS history to record three 20-goal seasons, with a one-of-a-kind finish in which he glanced a header off the post and blasted in his own rebound.
Five minutes out of halftime, the two center-backs for New York connected for a third goal. Tim Parker, one week after scoring his first goal for the club, flicked a pass to Aaron Long who tucked his header just underneath the crossbar. In a refreshing, reassuring performance, the Red Bulls got the three points they were supposed to.
With only two matches remaining in the regular season, the Red Bulls now sit at 20-7-5. In all competitions, the club is 24-9-7. After a seven-month, three-competition front, two trophies are within reasonable reach, and the Red Bulls have never looked more suited to capitalize on the opportunity.
The 3-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes was a showcase of what stands out about the 2018 Red Bulls: an elite defense and a winning record on the road. The two are intertwined, but it is the combination from the third goal on Saturday, Parker and Long, along with the maturity of outside backs Kemar Lawrence and Michael Amir Murillo, that sets this season apart.
“The one thing that is different about this season is our backline,” Robles said after the win over Atlanta on Sept. 30. “I think this is the first time in my seven seasons here that we have consistency in our backline, and the type of quality and talent to think that we can shut down any attack.”
With the fewest goals conceded per match in the league, 33 over 32 matches (1.03 GAA), assuredness on the backline has led to a remarkable consistency in results. This season, the Red Bulls have not lost back-to-back matches in the league, and only once lost two consecutive fixtures in all competitions.
Last season, form was not as stable, with a two-match losing streak in April, a three-match losing streak in May and a poor run of three losses in four during September. Of those eight losses, seven were on the road.
In 2016, form was downright erratic early on, as the Red Bulls opened with six losses in their first seven matches, with four of those matches on the road. The iconic 7-0 win over New York City FC jumpstarted the campaign, but the team hit another rough patch when it embarked on a four-match road trip from June to July, losing three and drawing the other.
New York already has more points than both seasons in which it won the Supporters’ Shield (2013 and 2015), but Chris Armas’ team still sits one point behind Atlanta, as both complete an epic chase for the silver plate.
“Let’s be real, they’re in the driver’s seat,” Wright-Phillips said after the win. “It’s up to them, all we can do is make it difficult. That’s all we’re trying to do, just make it go to the end.”
Whether or not the Red Bulls manage a third Shield, the ultimate goal this fall is MLS Cup. New York will finish with its highest regular season point total in history, and doing so has been no accident.
The trade for Parker on March 2 was undeniably a turning point in the low-cost, high-press era in Harrison. A defense that often seemed stretched out of position and holding on by a thread immediately became impenetrable with his introduction.
The postseason is imperfect, with an elixir of luck that proves fatal for all but one. But, with the league’s best defense and a road warrior status, the Red Bulls are more equipped than ever to handle the terrain.